Get an agent, they say

“The first step is to get an agent,” the Writers & Artists Handbook said. The blog posts said it, too. Everybody who wants to be a writer knows you should get an agent.

Get literary agent I wrote on a piece of paper. It was my 2014 New Year’s resolution.

I wondered what literary agents might be like. Perhaps they would be like Estelle from Friends. They’d wear outlandish clothes and chain smoke cigarettes and say, “Gillian, I can make you a superstar.”

My literary agent, when I first met her at Bill’s in Hammersmith, was only slightly older than me. She wore a striped jumper and a cool necklace and I wanted to ask her where her eyeliner was from (I did, subsequently; it is the Lancome Art Liner and it is perfection).

Her emails were always professional (All best, Clare) and her edits were incisive (this just doesn’t work). She had a way of knowing and telling me what was best for me before I even knew it myself (I’ll tell you when there’s news – distract yourself).

Things changed after time. Things changed after a deal was done, both because we both knew I was sellable, but also because of the heads-together nature of it. Those emails, those calls, where we discussed my future writing career, what I’m doing next, how long I need to do it.

“What of this piece in the Bookseller?” I would say, and she would always respond with her view. We have played maybe two hundred games of Words With Friends, and once, when we were on submission, I wrote the word “W A I T” and thought I seemed very smart.

We Whatsapp, these days, in these established days of our relationship. I send her gifs of me drumming my fingers, sometimes. I screenshot my reviews. She sends me photos of her daughter. She tells me to relax more.

Get an agent, the guidebooks said. They were right, of course. But I didn’t know it could be this way. A hand to hold, a counsellor, an advisor, a friend.

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It is 36 hours until my novel comes out

“Do you have anything you’d like to add?” my friend Gemma says to me. The interview is at a close. My book is almost launched, three days before its release, and I’m sitting on a high stool, holding a microphone, staring out at almost everybody I’ve ever met.

I say some thank yous that feel like poor facsimiles of the deeds my family, friends and publishing professionals have done for me. I cut short the thank you to Dave because my throat closes up. And then the microphone is being taken away – did somebody take it away, or did I hand it over? How strange and distorted the spotlight turns your mind – and people are parting so I can walk, first, to the signing table, and now the formal part of my book’s launch is over.

As I walk past I see there is a stack of my books right next to the till, all looking satisfying identical. I wonder if I could tell them apart, my books in the wild, but I think I have to stop trying, stop trying to read every review, to keep track of it all. One of the books on the pile is dog-eared, but otherwise they are all just the same. Replicas.

I walk through the cookery section, holding my Sharpie. I never thought I would be ready for this moment. It was racing towards me and every day, I was thinking: I am not ready for this. Not ready for a launch at which I would be the centre of attention, not ready for people I speak to every day to be reading my fiction, not ready for the sales, the sales, the sales figures.

How can I get ready? The days have rushed past and I have pondered this while having iPhone dinners and showers during which I accept Oscars and imagine my Amazon rank to be 1,000,000 (very bad). Another day done. Another night done, I think, as soon as I wake. Two weeks to go. One week to go. Just days. Only a handful of days remain.

I have plans the weekend after my book is out that I have paid almost zero attention to. I know they exist. I know they will happen, but for now, for me, the curve of the earth is steep, a sheer drop, and they are on the other side of it – only a step away, but a big one.

As I walk across the bookshop, my feet echoing on Waterstone’s wooden floors, I see a couple of people at the back of the audience have started to move. They approach the till. A friend reaches to pick one of my books up, lingering over the cover, her index finger out, tracing my name – my name! – and then she hands it to the bookseller, and pays by contactless card – a tiny beep – and the bookseller places it in her hands. I have stopped, stock still, next to the photography section. I am still looking, watching this transaction in awe. She is £7.99 worse off, and she now owns my book. A tiny piece of me.

I hurry to the chair where I will be signing books, but I keep seeing that book sale in my mind. The first I’ve witnessed. And it might be that the launch is over, my Everything But The Truth cake cut, that I am surrounded by a safety net of family and friends, but I don’t think so. No. It is seeing that sale.

You see, the books have replicated exponentially, and I have tried, and failed, to keep track of them all, like a father whose children have had children have had children have had children, and suddenly there are thousands of them and I cannot tell who is who. They are not mine anymore; they are distant relatives, descendants of me. But they are not me. And they are not mine.

That sale. It has done it. That contactless beep. The book is, in its thousands, out in the world in 36 hours’ time, and here I am: finally ready.

It is not 19 days until my novel comes out

9781405928267_EverythingButtheTruth_COV.JPGMy book comes out in under three weeks, just over two, and time has become very strange and distorted indeed. I suppose it is because, no matter what stage I am at – looking at the beautiful page proofs, holding the first ever edition, reading my own reviews – I cannot quite believe this is happening. I have quite animated imaginary conversations with my past self, while I am in the shower and driving alone in my car. “You have a book deal with Penguin,” I tell 2008 me, bed bound and languishing and sick and not working but blogging every single day, voraciously, and neither of us can truly comprehend it.

My publication day is no longer on the horizon. It is almost upon me, like the globe has turned too quickly, suddenly. It has gone from oh, next year to March to next month and now it is so close I feel I can almost reach my fingers towards it and grasp it, only I am stuck on February the 18th and it is out on March the 9th and I cannot quite reach it, no matter how hard I try. And so I wait here, on February the 18th, looking at March the 9th, just over there, just a few sleeps away, but I cannot quite reach it, nor the things it will bring.

“How are you feeling? Are you excited?” acquaintances say to me. Am I excited? I think incredulously. No. Because it cannot possibly be happening. Not to me. Small me, who always wanted this, for her whole entire life. In my next shower, I tell my twelve year-old self about the Penguin book deal. She has just finished a book called Where Magic Is Possible, and she can’t believe it either.

“So next Monday we’re going to Liverpool,” my boyfriend said last night to me. We were walking from a restaurant called Stable to our car, parked fifteen minutes away in the Jewellery Quarter. The lights of the Town Hall were so bright they flared up into the sky like moonbeams.

“Yes.”

“And then after that…”

“Stop right there,” I said.

“God, it’s two weeks away.”

“It’s not,” I said, trying to ignore it.

His hand was warm around me and he didn’t say anything more, though I suspect he would like to talk about what we’re actually doing that week. But I can’t. It has emerged from the distant future and into the now and – here it is. I am near to term, 38 weeks’ gestation, and waiting. I am a woman who is scrubbing her skirting boards without knowing why.

I could say my fear is because of the sales figures, or the hoards of strangers reading my book, or the people I know who will be reading it, and reading themselves into it, but I don’t think it is any of that. It is because I am – in just over two weeks – about to be thrust into something else. Into Other. From unpublished to published, and everything that comes with it. Those others things – they remain unknown to me. I am getting glimpses of them – reading about myself in Hello Magazine, for example – but they are becoming more obvious, like the glinting beginning of the sunrise, just over there.

It is Saturday the 18th of February and this morning I tidied my entire house, like I am nesting, and soon I will write two thousand words of my third book, and tonight I will go to sleep and I will be another day closer to it all happening. The windows are open for the first time in six months and it is slightly warmer, but that cannot be true because my book is a spring release, and it cannot almost be spring – it cannot, it cannot – because that would mean I am about to achieve my actual dream, and that cannot be happening. Not to me. No.

Books I loved hard in 2016

I must begin this list with the usual disclaimer: I read and loved many books in 2016, and these are just some of them. Some I have tweeted and instagramed about already, so this is just a selection of books I loved very ardently in 2016 who haven’t yet been touted about much on the internet by me.

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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly – out 20 April

I finished this very recently, in December, but have still found myself thinking about it often in the few weeks since I finished it. It is about a newly in love couple who witnesses what they believe to be a rape during the eclipse in Cornwall in 1999 (which I was actually at, with my Mum; I remember the disappointing cloud cover, too). They testify as witnesses at the rape trial and the book follows what happened following that event then, and now, and why the protagonist of the book, Laura, has become so anxious. It is at once atmospheric, moody and fast-paced. I have thought of the characters often since I finished it. The legal stuff, in particular, is very plausible.

The Mistake I Made – Paula Daly 

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I had never read a Paula Daly until the autumn of this year, and now I can’t quite understand why, as I wait for her Fourth novel, The Trophy Child, imminently due. She treads my favoured line that runs between thrillers and women’s fiction: ostensibly, this is a psychological suspense novel about a woman who sleeps with a man to clear her debts and remove the threat of the bailiffs from her door, and all that follows, but really it is about her failed relationship, a new relationship, and her sense of self as both a woman and mother. It was perfection.

51A0hlEAOZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Well – Catherine Chanter

Of all the books I read this year, I think about The Well the most often. Part dystopian novel, it’s about a couple who own the only remaining source of water in the UK, a well on their land. Really, though, it is straight women’s fiction, about a relationship under scrutiny, about the divide between public and private lives, and about what people will do when they’re desperate.

My Husband’s Son – Deborah O’Connor  51Kl-LABO0L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I don’t think I have raved about a book more than I have this one. I must have sold tens of copies of the people who I insisted must read it. Its premise is simple: two people in a relationship met because their children went missing; Heidi’s child was found dead, but Jason’s is still out there. What if you thought your husband’s son was living nearby, but you weren’t sure? I loved the premise, but more than that, I loved the gorgeous prose and the intelligent treatment of the plot: it is recognised that it is not as simple as getting the child tested, and the subject matter is treated sensitively and realistically. And that ending – Wow.

61-pAaLV+3L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena

If there were a prize for the best set-up I’ve ever read in a thriller, this would win it. A boozy dinner party. A couple who leave their child – just next door, and check the baby monitor every half an hour. They arrive home, and the baby is gone. That set up, those first pages, are literary perfection; a masterclass in how to reach out, grab a reader, and not let them go. I devoured it in just a few days.

Miss You – Kate Eberlen 

41xAOb55iPL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was lucky enough to read this book in Florence itself, where much of it is set. It is a high concept love story, about a woman and a man who are perfect for each other, but whose paths simply won’t cross. Having written a book that is similar to this in structure (my second baby to be born in 2018 is a Sliding Doors-style split narrative), the biggest challenge is making sure both stories stand strong on their own. Eberlen excels at this. Miss You almost reads like two bildungsromans, one for Tess, one for Gus, until they entwine beautifully, and unexpectedly, at the end. Sigh.

Gone Without A Trace – Mary Torjussen

51lyaC0IhmL-3.jpgThis debut hooked me good and proper. A woman comes home from work to discover her boyfriend, all his belongings, and his internet presence have disappeared. What I loved most about it was that it moved almost in real time and it was utterly plausible. The heroine, Hannah, was completely gobsmacked, as we all would be, a heartbroken, too. There was a real gripping depth to this.

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner

61e6-0rninl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Hoo, boy. Do I have one hell of a book hangover currently. I wasn’t expecting to like Missing, Presumed. It takes a lot for me to truly love a police procedural (my tastes sit too far in women’s fiction) but love it I did. Completely. Utterly. Smitten. I (like Erin Kelly, quoted on the jacket), too, did not want it to end. Not one little bit. It is a gripping thriller (and it is truly gripping) with a plot that rattles along at pace, but what I truly loved about it were the characters. There are no maverick alcoholic cops here. Just two women – real women, one of whom wants a relationship more than most anything – who get on with each other and want to solve a crime. There is such a richness of character to this, and a lightness to the prose; I laughed many times. I also highlighted so many passages, I scratched my kindle with my nail.

 

Post-novel delivery

“I won’t be ready again for a while,” I say to my father, my boyfriend, my friends. Texts to my agent. A writers’ group WhatsApp. I need to wind down first, I say. They look at me, knowingly, when the next novel idea comes, and afterwards, too.

It is supposed to be easy, we writers think. But it is not easy, because it is work. Not the words; the words aren’t work. Nor are the scenes. Nor the lifting, shifting structural edit which I have to do halfway through every book, every time with knots in my stomach as I realise – like a person disappointed they have put the hinges of the IKEA wardrobe on backwards, and the doors on upside down, and the back on skewed – that I have to re-do it. None of that is the difficult part. No. It is merely the fact that it must be done.

As I eat my breakfast, they are there. They are there, too, on a sunny Saturday in July. On Bank Holidays and birthdays. The thousand words I must do. That scene I must change from being set in a cafe to being set outside. That character I must strip away, erase their presence, and the other characters’ memories of them, like they have gone into witness protection. There is never, anymore, nothing at all to do. I reach the end of my to-do list every year in November – finish novel – and never before. And, even then, the circus of admin that surrounds the sale of a book. The VAT; the Polish double-taxation form.

“Nope,” I say to my Dad when he asks tentatively again about book three. “Not ready to even discuss it yet. I still can’t watch half an hour of television without feeling guilty.”

It is true. They take it out of you, these books. Or perhaps they take it out of me in particular, I don’t know. Joanna and Reuben, from my now-second book, are fully formed. I could bump into them in the street, would know exactly how they would respond to most anything. But it took a year to get there. It took a lot of me, to put into them, to bring them to life. The end result must look easy, to some, but the hours calculator on my Pages document says 704 hours, 56 minutes.

“Yes, rest,” Dad says. I tell him about watching 24 Hours in A&E for an entire hour the previous night; the first solid hour of television I have watched since the summer and he nods. “You need to recover, then,” he says.

I nod, too, decisively, but I cannot ignore them anymore. The next people, queuing up, like determined new neighbours, continuing to knock even though it has become rude. They ring the bell twice, three times. Rattle the letterbox. They are ready. My new characters. Two sisters. A taller, more awkward one. Yes. I can see her.

I flex my fingers over the keyboard a few days later. Send my agent a synopsis. I had forgotten. I always forget. Novels take it out of me, you see, but when I am not writing, there is nothing to take at all; I am only half-me, in the first place, without writing.

Then and Now

1994 (we think)

Dad can’t quite believe it when he sees them.

We are – I think – just walking up the crest of a small hill, on top of a cliff, when he sees them. It’s dusk, and the air is that blue-ish purple it seems only to be in July, during the summer holidays, with my family. The ground is spongy and yields strangely underfoot and Dad reaches out a hand to steady me as I stumble over the sandy grasses.

Well,” Dad says, looking down, to the bottom of the cliff, and then at me. Music is playing, down at ground level, beyond us.

“What?” I say, about nine years old, and unconcerned with my father’s hobbies.

“That,” Dad says, pointing down at the ground as a band strum a song, “is my all-time favourite band. James.”

The air seems to shimmer with the sounds. I’ve never heard music like it. Not boy bands or novelty acts or The Spice Girls, but true, proper music. An acoustic guitar. The beat as the drums kick in; like optimism in music form. The shooting-star twang of that first, clean note of an electric guitar.

“You need to hear Sit Down,” Dad says. “It’s the perfect song.” He has begun teaching me about music, recently. Trying to wean me away from Boyzone and towards Bob Dylan, David Gray, some rap.

The lead singer’s voice fills the summer air around us. It’s pure and loud. Effortless.

We find a wide, flat rock. And, from there, drinking two Cokes amongst the stiff, coastal grasses, totally alone, we watch the most perfect concert, seemingly, just for us.

***

2016 

We almost miss it. My train is late. The motorway is shut. We have had no dinner. Dad’s hands look older, on the steering wheel, as he frustratedly tries to follow my haphazard directions.

But now we are here, in the stalls, drinking cokes. It’s hot, and our coats are on the chairs in front of us. James walk on, Tim Booth wearing wide-leg trousers and a trendy coat with its collar up. “He looks nothing like I thought,” I say.

“Don’t you remember?” Dad says, turning to me in surprise.

“I remember. But he’s different, now,” I say. Dad’s forehead lines catch the spotlights as the auditorium dims around us. They open with a new song, a song I don’t yet know. I lean into the darkness, against my dad. The view isn’t as good this time, but the rest is just the same.

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Due date

“Is it in there?” a friend says to me across a pub table. Well, no, not a pub table. A table in the bar of my father’s squash club, to be precise. We’ve set up a quiz team. We go sometimes on Thursday nights, when we have time. I drink too much Coke and eat cheese-flavoured crisps and put my feet on the radiator and laugh at funny things my friend, my boyfriend, and my father say. I don’t think about foreign tax forms or edits or anything adult at all on these Thursday nights. Not usually, anyway.

“Here it is,” I say, getting my book out. I take it, sometimes, to meet my friends.

I hand it across the table and pass it over. “Your nephew.”

“Nephew?” Dad says, looking at my friend who is holding the book, looking down at it.

“If I had a baby, my friends would be its aunts and uncles,” I say, which seems to make sense to me. My Dad shrugs, smiling. He is always smiling, these days. Since I sold my book.

“Look at it,” my friend says. “Mate, this is real.”

We look at my book on the table, saying nothing, until one of my Dad’s friends ambles over. “What’s this?” he says, nudging my book along the table.

“That would be my daughter’s book,” my Dad says, visibly puffing up. “Everything But The Truth.”

Dad’s friend picks up the book and looks at me. “Yours?” he says, looking flabbergasted. I nod.

Dad leaps up and points out the quotes on the back of my book. “It is a domestic noir.”

“Is it?” the man says, looking at me.

“Available for pre-order on Amazon,” my friend says. “See for yourself.”

“Thank you, sales and marketing,” I say, looking at the book. I used to wonder how authors whose books were out felt. Did they feel the same about each and every book, I would wonder; like having thousands of children, out in the world, whose form you would recognise in the train station and across the library and in the basement at Waterstones? But now there are already five copies of my book in my house and, tomorrow, after I finish this can of Coke and go home and go to sleep, many, many more books are being printed and sent out into the world. To bloggers and newspapers and authors and – well. The world.

I reach across the table, my fingers inching towards my novel, and I touch its beautiful grey matte cover. These are our last moments together, me and my book, with my close friends and my dad. It is still ours. This amazing thing that happened to us all. This thing we never believed could happen to somebody as ordinary as me.

And tomorrow.

Tomorrow, it becomes everybody else’s, too.

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